The earth moves every few days under the feet of unsuspecting Peruvians, a phenomenon that goes unnoticed by those who either do not know of the existence of a major risk of disaster in Peru or choose to ignore it.
As a tourist, I am well aware that during my two-week stay I was not exempt from being involved in a major earthquake. Such a risk is part of Peruvian geography and thus integral to Peruvian life. Before leaving, I downloaded a mobile app that keeps me informed of any major developments. Am I over-reacting? Maybe I shouldn’t have watched the movie,“The Impossible.”
The last major earthquake occurred in the region where I stayed – Pisco. In 2007, a 8.0 magnitude quake hit the region causing major damage and killing 519 people.
My son’s great-grandfather was sitting outside his adobe house when he suddenly witnessed the collapse of the kitchen wall. At the tender age of 88, he spent weeks sleeping in a tent that was provided by rescue services and had to wait months before his house could be rebuilt. My wife’s parents were lucky insofar that they endured minimal damage. Today, the only reminder of that deadly quake is the presence of a few cracks on the walls of the living-room.
Whereas any major earthquake in Peru will have deadly consequences, one occurring in Lima will be catastrophic for the 10 million inhabitants who live in the all too derelict capital of Peru. Despite being constantly warned about the dangers of a major earthquake, Lima remains as unprepared as ever and its inhabitants just as complacent. It’s one thing constantly worrying about such a threat, but it’s another ignoring it altogether.
Seismology experts have warned that up to 50,000 people could be killed and 200,000 homes destroyed in Lima following an earthquake measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale. The fundamental reason for such a high death-toll is the unpreparedness for such an event and the precarious living conditions that people living in Peru find themselves in.
The Peruvian government has taken steps to inform the population in how to react when an earthquake strikes. On August 15th, the National Civil Defense Institute organised a 10-minute national drill in order to test people’s reactions to an earthquake and tsunami in order to identify weak points in the emergency help and thus mitigate risks.
Because of a chronic lack of housing in Lima, existing houses are expanded with lightweight materials and without proper supervision and expert advice. My brother-in-law who lives in a shanty town situated on one of the sand slopes that surrounds Lima is doing precisely that. There is no room for his 4 growing children and he is forced to build a first floor with the finance and the means at his disposal. It takes just one faulty or weak floor for the whole house to collapse during an earthquake.
Lima is confronted with a second threat during a major earthquake – that of the Pacific Ocean. Being a coastal city, Lima is exposed to the ravages caused by a tsunami immediately following a major earthquake.
The more affluent districts of Lima such as Miraflores are, they say, better protected against earthquakes and rising water. The presence of highrise buildings provides a vertical escape route from the deadly tsunami. But it is the rest of Lima that presents the real threat. Weak houses built on unsustainable slopes comprising sandy soils and underground water is a recipe for disaster.
The incredible thing is that I have never even discussed with my brother-in-law the threat of a major earthquake in Lima. He showed me the recently expanded first floor of his house and was all excited about how it would look like when it is finished. “Slowly but surely, it will be finished,” he told me.
The most deadly earthquake to have hit Lima occurred on October 28th 1746. It hit the port of Callao, where a 50-foot tsunami killed all but 200 of the 5000 inhabitants.
The relative seismic silence since the disaster of 1746 only increases the risk of another disaster occurring in the future. According to seismic experts, the worst case scenario would be a direct shallow earthquake hitting the already fragile city. But despite the risk, together with the fact that Lima accounts for a third of Peru’s population, 70% of its industry and 85% of its economic activity, the capital remains as unprepared as ever. Evacuation plans are limited to a 10-minute drill and I am convinced that most people do not know how to react in case of an earthquake due to the lack of public awareness. Together with the absence of stringent codes for new buildings, Lima remains the most exposed South American capital in the event of a major earthquake.
In the same way that knowing first-aid measures can be helpful in everyday life, people living in regions with high seismic activity should be aware of what to do in the event of an earthquake.
If indoors at the time of an earthquake, there are two basic protocols that you can follow.
(I) Drop, cover and hold on
In this protocol you basically drop to the ground, take cover under a piece of furniture such as a table, and hold on.
(II) The “triangle of life”
If escaping the building is not possible, this protocol advises you to drop to the ground and take up a fetal position next to, but not under, some sort of bulky furniture like a fridge or a cupboard. If in bed, you are advised to drop to the ground next to the bed and take up the fetal position there.
I find it difficult to imagine my reaction at such a time of crisis. My first impulse, I suppose, would be to grab my mobile phone and my documents that I always keep in a reachable place before seeking shelter. But there is a huge difference between rehearsing in your mind what you are going to do and actually carrying out you plans in a dire situation.
I suppose, in a way, that the inhabitants of Lima are not entirely wrong to carry on their lives as if nothing will happen. Seismic activity is something that they have always lived with and is an integral part of what it means to be Peruvian. In this way, my wife never thinks about the possibility of an earthquake whilst I, to be honest, have always this nagging feeling that the more often I travel to Peru, the greater the chance of me being involved in something bad.
It’s quite probable that I need not worry because Peru has already had a major earthquake this year. On May 29th a magnitude 8 earthquake struck the sparsely populated Amazon region. Two people died from falling debris as many old houses collapsed. The tremors were felt as far away as Lima where people rushed into the streets out of fear.
Living on the Ring of Fire, where the Nazca and South American plates slide across each other at a rate of more than 70mm per year, probably leads to different perspectives on life. I suppose that it is comparable to driving a car without constantly thinking that you will die in a traffic accident. All the same, it is a strange feeling – at least for me – being in Peru, where the ground can literally slide from under my feet. It’s quite a moving experience, literally.